Improving journal club: Increasing student discussion and understanding of primary literature in molecular biology through the use of dialectical notes


  • Virginia McDonough

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    1. Department of Biology, Hope College, PO Box 9000 Schaap Science Center, Holland, Michigan 49422-9000
    • Department of Biology, Hope College, PO Box 9000 Schaap Science Center, Holland, Michigan 49422-9000
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Reading the primary literature in a journal club format is an excellent practice where undergraduate students can develop their abilities in experimental data analysis and critical thinking, learn about new ideas and methods, and gain a foothold in scientific discourse. However, students are not familiar with the format, writing style, and depth of knowledge assumed when first reading journal articles. This can inhibit class discussion. To alleviate this problem, the author has instituted the use of dialectical notes in journal club, so that students fully engage the article. This novel use of a strategy borrowed from humanities has improved class participation. © 2012 by The International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

Journal club is a time-honored learning activity that originated with medical school students [1], but has spread throughout scientific graduate programs. Everyone in the club reads the same scientific article, but one person will present the paper and lead a group discussion of the material. Clubs read current papers, so that the students can learn about the new findings and the novel techniques. Most clubs focus on a relatively narrow range of topics that is relevant to the group's research areas. For undergraduates, journal club is an excellent way to introduce students to the primary literature, to develop their abilities in critical thinking, and to practice interpreting experimental data.

Students in the junior/senior level Molecular Biology class participate in a course-based journal club. The author will choose the articles, and a team of two students will present each paper and lead the discussion. Over the years, the presenters have generally done a fine job, but class participation in the discussion has been weak. There is evidence that students who are not presenters have read the paper; they posses a dog-eared copy which is all marked up (sometimes highlighted in several different colors), they have submitted questions before class time, and they will answer the author's questions about the paper when called upon. But the class does not generally add much to the discussion. After informal conversations with students on this problem, the author has found that there are several barriers to participation that seem to fall into two broad categories. First, there is a lack of background student's knowledge; they do not understand all the experiments, the figures may be difficult to interpret if they are in a format they are not familiar with, and they struggle with identifying the salient points for drawing conclusions. Second, there is a certain hesitancy to speak out in class; perhaps to display to the class the fact they did not understand something, or to appear enthused that something really intrigued them, or they even may be unsure how to frame their question. Both these points ultimately derive from the fact that the primary literature is a completely different way of delivering information than a textbook or lecture. It is evidence based, and one must understand each experiment as a piece of evidence to discuss the conclusion. Many undergraduate students are not yet comfortable with extracting and evaluating evidence after having spent their entire learning careers being handed the conclusion. Further complicating the matter, the articles in the primary literature are a specialized set of knowledge, and are delivered in a writing style that is as succinct as possible. Undergraduate students lack confidence in their ability to read such specialized writing to be able to contribute to journal club. But, these are important skills that novice scientists need to learn. They need to be able to interpret and evaluate evidence, and how to discuss research with colleagues. Reading the primary literature is the best way, apart from actually doing research, to learn how research is performed and presented. Moreover, reading the primary literature will enhance students' critical thinking skills, skills that will carry over into the rest of the course work.

Students clearly need a new, more interactive, way to engage this form of communication; a way that helps them to not only pick out the important conclusions, but also lets them admit they do not grasp every statement or experiment, a way that equally values “understanding” and “do not understand yet.” To address these issues, the author has instituted a novel method of having students interact directly with the manuscript in a spontaneous, nonjudgmental way—dialectical notes. Dialectical notes are a strategy used in the humanities to engage students in a text. The author has modified their use for students to read scientific articles.

As part of an effort to increase writing ability in students, a faculty workshop was held at the author's home institution entitled From Informal Writing to Formal Writing Assignments. Sessions were designed to help professors develop strategies to increase and improve writing in the undergraduate curriculum. Several compelling ideas were discussed and practiced, but one in particular caught the author's attention: dialectical notebooks [2]. Dialectical notebooking is a strategy where the reader divides a piece of paper in half into two columns. One half is labeled “text”; the other half is labeled “comments” or “reaction.” In the author's version of this approach of “student meets text,” the reader writes down under “text” the information that confuses them, which they do not understand, or information they find illuminating or surprising. In the “response” column, they write why this section was of particular interest. In this dialectical note taking, they can write questions about the paper “What is the control?,” “Why did they do it this way?,” and “How is this type of experiment done?.” They also will write about new facts they just learned, and why they find them interesting or enlightening. Students are encouraged to write what they think as they read the article. It is handwritten and hence the process is unedited and spontaneous. Now, students have more fully engaged the paper, and feel confident in what they have learned, and what they still need to learn. Students are encouraged to look up technical questions before class (“What is a northwestern blot?”). In class, they ask questions about the interpretations, and techniques, but also discuss the new ideas they have learned. Figure 1 shows a typical example of a student's dialectical notebook page.

Figure 1.

An example of a typical page from a student's dialectical notes.

As far as the mechanics of journal club, for the first paper, the author will lead the discussion. Then, after the session where the author has served as discussion leader, the assigned student leaders take over. As mentioned earlier, the author assigns each team a paper, but there are several other strategies available. Faculty could choose a large number of papers, and let students choose among those, or students could choose their own paper to present from a given topic area. The author has experimented with a few different themes of paper topics; the author has assigned several papers on one topic, covering experiments from early days to current findings (e.g., cholesterol metabolism). This strategy worked well; however, now papers are assigned that relate to the students' projects in lab. The students enjoy reading about topics they are actually investigating, and, on their own, will relate the findings in the papers to what they have found in lab.

Students present in teams of two although working singly would also be an option. The team approach serves two purposes; it reduces the number of presentations to half (an important time consideration), and it provides some moral support for students who are nervous about class presentations.

Student's evaluation of the dialectical notes is summarized in Table I. Overall students felt that using the dialectical notes was a positive experience, with students agreeing that it was useful in understanding the article (Questions 1–3), and helped their participation in class discussion (Question 6). Most students enjoyed writing spontaneously, without being graded on their unedited thoughts, but a few did not care so much for the lack of structure (average 3.9 ± 0.9 for both Questions 4 and 5). Although most of the students agreed that they might use this strategy in the future, some were less enthusiastic (Question 8). This response may correlate with not caring for the lack of structure. Students who responded in the open comments section wrote comments such as

  • 1“I liked how it engaged me in the text. I thought about the article more deeply than I usually would,”
  • 2“They forced me to read actively,”
  • 3“They practiced ability to read articles and pick out important information,”
  • 4“It made me actually concentrate on what I was reading, rather than just reading to get a grade.”
Table I. Student evaluation of dialectical notesa
QuestionAverage ± SD
  • a

    Students were given eight questions to answer on a 5-point scale: 5, strongly agree; 4, agree; 3, neutral; 2, disagree; 1, strongly disagree (n = 18). In addition, students had an opportunity to include written comments.

1) Writing dialectical notes was useful because it helped me focus on what I did not know3.8 ± 0.75
2) Writing dialectical notes was useful because it helped me focus on interesting parts of the article4.0 ± 0.50
3) Writing dialectical notes was useful because it helped me better understand the experiments and conclusions3.8 ± 0.73
4) I enjoyed writing dialectical notes because it was unstructured writing (“Spontaneously” written without editing or judgment)3.9 ± 0.90
5) I was glad that dialectical notes were ungraded3.9 ± 0.90
6) I think that writing dialectical notes improved my participation in discussion of the article4.0 ± 0.74
7) I think that writing dialectical notes helped me understand the journal articles more than if I had not written the notes3.9 ± 0.90
8) I might use the dialectical note strategy in the future when reading articles3.6 ± 0.94

Originally, the author tells the class that the dialectical notes should be a page or two, but after a few journal articles, many students prepare notes that are a dozen pages long. The author collects the notes after journal club, but will only peruse them; the author grades the notes only as done/not done. As instituting the dialectical note taking, the author has observed much more confidence in class discussion. The author admit that she will still ask leading questions “what did you find surprising/interesting in this paper?” or, “what does this experimental finding mean?.” But now, many students will contribute to the conversation, and add their own observations.


The author thanks her Hope College English Department colleagues Dave Klooster and Jackie Bartley, who organized and ran the From Informal Writing to Formal Writing Assignments workshop. The author also acknowledges her 2010 and 2011 molecular biology classes for their willing participation as she developed the strategy.